In the West, water has always had an outsize importance as a natural resource. Without water, life won’t last long, and precious little of it comes naturally in the arid desert.
So when large poisonous algae blooms appear in reservoirs, lakes and ponds across the state of Utah, it’s more than just a problem that needs solving. It is a potential crisis of enormous proportions.
In this case, however, the problem isn’t confined to the West. A new analysis by the Associated Press found that algae blooms are infesting everything from the Great Lakes to city water supplies.
An AP story quoted an environmental scientist who said, “It’s a big, pervasive threat that we as a society are not doing nearly enough to solve.” A nation of 325 million people cannot afford to allow threats to its water supply or, to a lesser extent, threats to the millions of dollars that water recreation adds to the economy yearly. Yet the response so far seems tepid.
Utah has received federal funding for the algae problem, but it isn’t clear whether the effort has been well-placed. As a Deseret News story noted this week, from 2009 to 2016, the U.S. Department of Agriculture provided Emery and Box Elder counties with $1.8 billion in funding to reduce nutrient and sediment runoff, even as other counties were feeling the effects as well.
Utah County, where more than 100 swimmers were sickened in Utah Lake in 2016, and where boaters last summer were warned to steer clear of green scum, received only about $776,000 over that same time.
Part of the problem seems to be a disagreement over the source of the problem. Federal officials see farmers and agricultural runoff laden with fertilizer as a primary source. They have established a voluntary program for reducing such runoff.
Utah water regulators, however, blame wastewater treatment plants and are instead setting limits for phosphorous emissions that must be met by 2020.
The value of such strategies will be easy to calculate with time. Either things get better or they don’t. Water managers say incentives to improve irrigation systems in Utah already have helped, yet the problem persists.
While algae is an important part of the food chain, its growth has been overwhelming water ecosystems in recent years. The state’s Department of Environmental Quality believes 32 percent of Utah’s lakes and reservoirs have a nutrient deficit, and the forecast for the next 20 years is for the water quality to decrease in Utah’s rivers. Naturally, a quickly growing population fuels this problem, but an arid state cannot afford to see its water supply degrade.
This is no trivial matter. Utahns, from farmers to state lawmakers and the governor, need to make water purity a top priority.